What We Lost: Public Trust in the Medical Information Discourse Over the Pandemic


Misinformation created unnecessary hospitalizations and mortality and demonstrated the chasm in public health communication.

One of the most damaging aspects of the pandemic is that misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and therapies created unnecessary hospitalizations and deaths.

“We always cite the statistic that about 200,000 people died in 2021 alone after the COVID-19 vaccines were available,” said Katrine Wallace, PhD, research epidemiologist and an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health. “And we know that the vaccine saves lives and prevents hospitalizations. So, if we wanted to get close to quantifying that, I would say there's not a better statistic to use.”

Despite the fact people suffered and succumbed to COVID-19 unnecessarily, people dug their heels in and believed where they got their news was correct even if those sources were putting out misinformation.

“We've created this binary of science versus not science. And you're right, and I'm wrong,” said Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, is an infectious disease epidemiologist and science communicator based at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “And I think in that kind of binary thinking, trust is bound to be lost because people don't operate in that binary [process] all the time when it comes to making decisions. They operate with a lot of emotional and trauma information—and history. We have a lot to learn from psychology when it comes to restoring trust and public health.”

As epidemiologists, Wallace and Malaty Rivera are both on the frontlines trying to decipher statistics and data and communicating that information to the public in a way that is manageable to everyone.

“I think the COVID-19 pandemic was a terrible case study in what happens when organizations and even the federal government deprioritize things like science communication,” Malaty Rivera said.

In addition to the federal government not prioritizing communication, Wallace points out social media is set up to capitalize financially no matter if the information is factual or not.

“There was a lot of misinformation spreading, and the [social media] platforms themselves don't really have much of an incentive to rein in misinformation, because when videos go viral, the platform can monetize that,” Wallace stated.

Wallace and Malaty Rivera participated on panels related to communicating medical information at the World AMR Congress that was held in Philadelphia last week. During the conference they sat down with Contagion to discuss these ongoing communication issues we have in public health as well as getting the public’s trust back in communicating health information.

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